A Report on the Association of Business Historians Conference 2014

2 07 2014

The ABH conference took place at Newcastle University Business School last week. I presented two papers: “Trading With the Enemy: HSBC’s Relationships with German Companies during the First World War” and “From Hierarchy to Market in Hong Kong’s retail banking, 1945-2005.” The second paper was co-authored with Bernardo Batiz-Lazo. I got valuable feedback and am currently revising the papers for submission.

The audience seemed to like the general approach I was taking in my paper on HSBC in the First World War. Some of my listeners were surprised to learn that the London branches of German banks remained in operation for much of the war. Other listeners were well aware of this fact and knew more than me about some of the British individuals who closely monitored these branches.  A historian of accountancy gave me very focused advice about a specific individual I need to investigate a bit more. I’m not certain what the audience thought of the theoretical framing of the paper, especially my decision to draw on the  theories of IB scholar Pankaj Ghemawat.  A senior person in the audience did suggest that I would have trouble publishing the paper in an International Business journal such as JIBS, since such journals have not yet been affected by the “historic turn” in management schools.  They are still pretty ahistorical, I’m told.

People really liked the theoretical framework we used in the Hong Kong payment systems paper, which was inspired by the knowledge-based theory of the firm developed by Lars Håkanson in his work on the firm as an “epistemic community.” We combined Håkanson’s theory with transaction-cost economics in studying the organizations that structured the transition to the cashless society in Hong Kong. During the early phases of Hong Kong’s transition towards the cashless society, the relevant technological innovations took place largely within the boundaries of large, Chandlerian corporations. During the more recent periods, interfirm networks became more important. Our paper compared and contrasted the “internal” deployment of early computers (at HSBC) in the pursuit of economies of scale in the 1960s and 1970s; with the “external” (i.e. non-bank or market) use of computers in micro-payments (Octopus chip) in the 1990s and 2000s.

Let me turn now from my papers to the conference in general. The conference went well. The organization was smooth, the IT always worked, and the food was superb.  Of course, you can say that of many conferences. The academic quality of the conference, which is the crucial thing, was high. This year’s ABH was inspirational and invigorating. I got the impression that many of the papers I was listening to were going to end up in 4 and 3 star journals. Moreover, the conference got me thinking about what it is to be a business historian in a management school. Where does my comparative advantage lay?  What relative strengths do people trained in history have?  What is the ideal division of labour when business historians collaborate with other management academics? What can I bring to the table that other management academics cannot?

Ostensibly, the theme of this year’s ABH conference was Crisis, Accountability and Institutions. At least that was the theme mentioned in the Call For Papers we sent out last year. However, conferences and workshops have a way of developing their own “emergent” themes that are different from those originally planned by the organizers. Call it Hayekian spontaneous order if you will.  I admired how the organizers of this year’s ABH allowed a theme that wasn’t mentioned in the original CFP to emerge and become dominant rather than try to squeeze the conference back into the original theme. There is a lesson there for all of us who organize conferences, workshops, or indeed anything in life, including the education of children.

Anyway, the issue that emerged as the central theme of this year’s ABH conference was the “historic turn” in management studies. In other words,  question of how business history can be mainstreamed (i.e., incorporated into the core curriculum of business schools and published in core management-schools journals). Back in 2004, Clark and Rowlinson called for a “historic turn” (i.e., the integration of “more history” into research and teaching is business and management schools. Keulen and Kroeze (2012) claimed that since 2004, incorporating history has indeed become “more common.”  When I first read the Keulen and Kroeze piece, my reaction that their claim that history was becoming part of the mainstream was an exercise in wishful thinking. I thought that because Keulen and Kroeze do not provide hard bibliometric data to support their assertion that there has been an increase in the volume of historical research published in top-tier management journals.

As the discussion at this year’s ABH conference made clear, a great deal has happened since Keulen and Kroeze wrote their optimistic piece in late 2011. Top management-school journals have recently published important articles by business historians. This point was made by Roy Suddaby in his keynote address. [Note:  Suddaby is the Eldon Foote Chair of Law and Society at the University of Alberta and is the Editor of the Academy of Management Review. He currently holds visiting professor positions at the University of Newcastle Business School and Copenhagen Business School, two institutions that really value historical research and teaching.] It was a reinforced at a roundtable session at which the current state of business history in management schools was discussed by Stephanie Decker, Michael Rowlinson, Alan McKinlay, Roy Suddaby, Alistair Mutch, Dan Wadhwani,  and John Wilson. The panellists discussed the recent publishing successes by members of the Business History community (see image below of a PowerPoint slide with some key publications listed on in) and strategies for helping to strengthen business history.

ABH 2014

There are a number of younger business historians who were trained in history departments and who are now working on getting their research published in core management school journals. What I would like to propose is an informal bi-annual gathering of such historians where we present our research and then get advice from scholars with similar disciplinary backgrounds who have already succeeded in getting their research published in the target journals. Essentially, this would involve an informal gathering at a seminar room somewhere near the middle of the UK, some beer and sandwiches, and then industrial-strength feedback.

I’ve included some photos that I took during the conference below. The first shows Laurence Mussio presenting on the history of the Bank of Montreal. The second shows Davie Bowie of Oxford Brookes presenting on the history of hotel management in Victorian Britain.

Mussio at ABH 2014


David Bowie


I didn’t get a chance to see much of Newcastle, but I was impressed by the parts of the city I saw, which were mainly located between the central railway station, my hotel, and the conference venue. The Sainsbury’s supermarket in the station has a very good selection of takeaway meals that you can bring with you on a train journey. The selection was much more extensive than in the average Sainsbury’s located in a train station.  Newcastle’s subway system was excellent and has roughly as many stations as Toronto’s network. Contactless payment systems similar to those pioneered in Hong Kong in the 1990s are used by passengers. There is a Chinatown of respectable size there, which means that an East Asian person would have no problem getting ingredients for their meals. I noticed that Taiwanese-style bubble tea, which is rarely found in British Chinatowns, was available in Newcastle. Bubble tea will be familiar to those who live near Canadian Chinatowns or university campuses.

Bubble Tea in Newcastle Chinatown

Bubble Tea in Newcastle’s Chinatown



Works Cited

Clark, P., & Rowlinson, M. 2004. The Treatment of History in Organisation Studies: Towards an ‘Historic Turn’? Business History. 46, 331-352.

Håkanson, L. 2010. The firm as an epistemic community: the knowledge-based view revisited. Industrial and Corporate Change vol. 19, no. 6 (2010), 1814.

Langlois, R.N., 2003. The vanishing hand: the changing dynamics of industrial capitalism. Industrial and Corporate Change 12, 351-385.

Keulen, S., & Kroeze, R. 2012. Understanding management gurus and historical narratives: The benefits of a historic turn in management and organization studies. Management & Organizational History7(2), 171-189.




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